March Comes in Like a Lion uses striking visuals of water to portray Rei's struggle with depression
There are a huge number of new anime premiering this season, unfortunately far more than the majority of us have the time to follow. As fans, we're put in the position where we must pick and choose between series, so the experience provided by the first episode can make or break the anime this Fall. Visually captivating an audience is the first chance a studio has to earn itself fans and, keeping that in mind, there is some seriously stiff competition this season. As if foreseeing ejust this sort of competitive dynamic, March Comes in Like a Lion doesn’t waste a single moment demonstrating its visual prowess with its powerful, and beautiful, portrayal of pain.
Musical score, voice performance, situation, and action can all be used to articulate a character’s sorrow, but the depression suffered by Rei Kiriyama is something else entirely. It isn’t a transitory feeling, it's a constant state of suffering that waxes and wanes but never fully dissipates. To the sufferer it can present a constant struggle simply to go about the daily activities that many of us take for granted while, to others, it's absolutely invisible. For us to appreciate Rei’s experience, the intensity and constancy of Rei’s emotions must be portrayed through sight and sound alone.
Among sufferers of chronic depression, a common metaphor for their experiences is that of drowning. March Comes in Like a Lion presents this more literally than metaphorically. The opening and ending sequence feature Rei alternatively floating inertly in the darkened depths of the ocean and struggling through waist-deep currents toward a warmly-illuminated horizon. The visual direction presents Rei’s depression as a tangible, multisensory force which has the power to overwhelm him and leaves reverberations in the real world between his dramatic departures, making room for more subtle indications that a part of him never escapes. Depression is water rising up around Rei, smothering his senses, strangling him, and pushing him downward into the dark. We see it as a constant presence and an explicit threat.
The first moments of the episode waste no time diving directly into Rei’s psyche through the medium of dreams, introducing us to his intrusive thoughts and emotional turmoil. Water circling into a drain draws us downward with it into an indistinct world of black and white where Rei stands beneath the shadow of a bridge. He is taunted by a sneering female voice, giving personality to the intrusive thoughts he experiences every day, describing everything from mundane insecurities to existential crises over the purpose of his life. Although he stands motionless, his hair and clothes whip violently around him, as if the woman’s words are physically lashing at him.
The dream appears to come to an end as Rei’s perspective shows bubbles rising in the water toward a bright light and we breach the surface to the brightness of his sunlit apartment. Following such a dramatic visual assault, were are presented with a number of more subtle cues calling Rei’s escape into question. His bangs float unnaturally over his forehead for just a moment as he awakens, our perspective is drawn closely to the bubbles rising in his water bottle as he takes a drink, and the rippling reflection of the water from outside on his face, all give the impression that he is still submerged.
Rei’s depression is the bottom of the ocean, black and cold, silent and still. These themes are nearly constant, providing us with the time to grow so accustomed to them that we only notice them in their absence. This contrast indicates the emotional refuge that the Kawamoto sisters represent to Rei. The most obvious visualization of this was the bright warmth of the interior of their home shining in the dark of the city night, its blue tones and the rippling lines radiating outward from the moon giving the impression of gazing upward at the light on the surface from the depths.
But it isn’t just shown in the color pallette, the introduction of the sisters is also the introduction of active motion and noise into the episode. Even in the light of day, the city, its people, and Rei himself are still, only moving slowly, as if fatigued. While playing Shogi, Rei arrives to an empty room and sits in silence. The other players don’t arrive so much as they appear immobile in their seats and then later vanish once more. His single conversation is held in hushed and awkward tones, with Rei’s eyes directed only at the board. When he emerges into the city, it is empty and utterly quiet. The silence is broken by Momo’s shouted greeting and sisters' laughter. Movement returns with their energetic bustling around their home as they prepared their shared meal.
Not even the warmth of Kawamoto home is safe from negative ideation, however. Where Rei’s dream sequence illustrated the content of intrusive thoughts which plague him, Rei’s experience during his meal with the sisters showed just how quickly even happy moments can be snached away from you. Interestingly, the moment seems to be triggered, not unlike PTSD, by the content of a newscaster whose words draw him back toward his own recollections of an unpleasant moment from his past.
The sounds of the sisters fade away, replaced only by the words on the television. We’re presented with a shot of Rei’s face upon which blackness bleeds from the center like a page dipped in ink, accompanied by the sound of bubbling water. The illusion is powerful, as if Rei’s head has been plunged underwater, a second shot shows Rei outside of his own perception, but still we see his hair is gently moving around his head as if floating in a gentle current. We return to his perspective of his own hand, obscured by long strands of hairs waving in the same current, appearing as if they may entangle his limb at any moment. The art and sound work in concert so that we can experience the sudden, suffocating feeling washing over him.
Using the right tool for the task is important to any trade. While the use of a finer instrument can create more immediately impressive results, there are times when a blunt tool is better for your purposes. March Comes in Like a Lion succeeded in introducing subtle elements to create the proper atmosphere, but also wasn’t afraid to open with extreme imagery to convey the intensity of Rei’s emotional experience. To do so in such a beautiful and captivating manner gives this series a strong start to match the established quality of its source material.